UK: Sir John Harvey-Jones - Memoirs of a natural subversive. (1 of 2)

UK: Sir John Harvey-Jones - Memoirs of a natural subversive. (1 of 2) - "Getting It Together" by John Harvey-Jones (Heinemann, 376 pages, £17.50).

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

"Getting It Together" by John Harvey-Jones (Heinemann, 376 pages, £17.50).

Review by Robert Heller.

Management superstars are rare in any country. None has proved rarer than Sir John Harvey-Jones. True, in a long, late-starting career with a multinational giant, he followed the standard success pattern: progressively more important posts, leading to the top of a major division, followed by elevation to the main board, and, in his late 50s, to the summit for the usual limited period - five years. The uniqueness lies elsewhere: not only in the radical change that he injected into ICI but in his emergence as a charismatic communicator who, more than anyone before, can make industry and management come vividly alive.

His autobiography does not really achieve the same effect, nor does it seek to. It is introspective, again in a most uncommon way. Sir John is less concerned with his work than his life, with how near he came to his ideal: "A sort of Boy's Own Paper composite, archetypal British gentleman - simultaneously strong and compassionate, stiff-lipped yet emotional, courageous both physically and morally, doing incessantly to others as you would be done by yourself." Leading ICI and helping "to try to arrest Britain's industrial decline" were crucial in this pilgrim's progress, but were not its objective.

Only this deeply ingrained belief in unending "personal development" makes sense of Sir John's statement that he found his "years as chairman, despite their apparent success, and the excess of praise which I received, one of the hardest and least enjoyable periods of my life". Stardom was not thrust upon him: he deliberately used a high profile to further the sorely needed regeneration of ICI and its image. But while the heroic role comes to him naturally, Sir John is uncomfortable wearing the purple: just like his BOP ideal, no doubt.

The book's theme follows the same thesis. Its author continually refers to the Jekyll and Hyde tension between the outwardly bluff and successful leader and the cowering small boy who lurks within, painfully aware of his inadequacies and longing for the respect of his own father. This human sensitivity must have contributed powerfully to the success of Sir John as a professional naval officer at sea, an operator in the secret world of naval intelligence, and the welder of ICI's huge, incoherent Wilton site into a harmonious whole.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime